Flicker pic by Bruce Henschel (CC BY-NC-ND)
It takes a certain kind of attitude to work as a writer in the marketing field. The litmus test, which I retake every month or so, is to read any of the myriad how-to posts about “conversion” — about how it’s fine to manipulate a “consumer” psychologically, in their soft, bloody fear center just as long as you’re not too hardcore— and see how I feel.
So far, I’m yet to feel anything but a cloud of dark doom with a serve of dessicating conscience, at such an everyday, and distressing, prospect.
I have been too ill to work much at all for quite a few years. But now I have had some improvement and I am hoping that I’m going to be able to get some semi-part-time-and-super-flexible lucre-earning happening, so I can take some strain off my partner, who has been supporting us both all this time.
What better area for someone who loves writing than content writing, right? It has all the flexibility my chronic illness requires with much more potential to earn semi-steadily, unlike the dire straits of pitching journalism and commentary and fiction to publications.
And so content writing is the obvious choice and I just can’t bring myself to do it.
Can’t you just be practical, I wrestle with myself? I mean, companies need to sell products and people need to buy them. Can you not just focus on that, without being haunted by the fact that what you feel you would be doing is either explicitly or implicitly trying to force a fellow human to buy something they probably don’t need, at the very time the earth groans under the weight of overconsumption? This way of looking at content writing is itself impractical for my bank balance. But I just can’t shift my viewpoint. I can’t not see the direct links between the system killing planet and people and the companies profiting in that system. When I hear other writers describing the slow rip of their soul dislodging itself from their sanity it helps to assauge, a little, the thought that I’m being unprofessional and sorta childish by railing at the reality that the only way a writer can earn a good living is by writing thinly disguised public relations for evil multinationals.
Everybody is different. You’ll either be okay with this form of writing and think me melodramatic, or like me you’ll feel a dread drag that starts in the center of your chest and pulls right down to the pit of your guts when you think of writing corporate propaganda, so that every time you go back, once again, in desperation, to reread the post about how much money you can make content writing, in a five minute spin you’ll whirl yourself away again, because you can’t, you just can’t, you just damn well can’t, and wishing to be the person who can is so far not working. And you’ll maybe feel bad about that, inadequate.
I really loathe this feeling of inadequacy, but not as much as I hate its counterforce— a small ball of shiny sanctimony that congratulates myself on how much more of the big picture I see than the apolitical proponents of content writing. We all know this self-righteous space. It’s where all our tweets now come from. A kind of cobbled-together bulwark to protect our poor selves and our fragile identities. It also condemns those people who don’t have the choice, as I seem to think I do, but must do whatever they can to pay the bills.
What’s the problem though with writing for companies who have products to sell that people need? It’s just commerce, exchange. Keeping the economy going. There’s nothing wrong at all with it if you keep the frame tight and look at it as a transaction. But I’ve never been able to keep the frame tight. My father asked in desperation why I was so inquisitive when I was seven years old, and since then I have been trying to slot together the pieces to see why the world is so beautiful but also so rigid and restrictive, because we all know there is something terribly wrong in the fragmented picture reflecting back to us. And now the picture has become a video; it’s a system. It runs us round and round into mechanical ruination. Especially because we have been made complicit, haven’t we, now, right in the center of capitalism’s over-consumption. Their system has been tied to our greed and low, low global prices so that it’s hard to see the system anymore. How many people can even remember what all those presents were they bought and received last Christmas? But look at how the maw gaped open again with the desire to fill it on December 26.
The internet has given writers way more opportunity and way more competition and way less dollars per word. Once, companies were restrained in a cage called an advertisement and what went on within the actual pages that the ads were funding was reasonably separate from commercial concerns. Kinda like the separation of church and state.
Now, when an entire industry slid like a newborn onto the cold slab of the internet the money has dried up from ad revenue and instead, companies have moved to the forefront. Now, writers write for the companies, rather than be funded by them. It’s a marked difference. Now, writing for companies is where the good money is at. Which is probably why you don’t hear much complaining about the privatization of writing. It’s much harder to have dissent when your copywriting for Lockheed Martin pays so well you don’t have to worry about your rent (or, more likely your mortgage; if you have conscience capacity to write for Lockheed Martin in the first place, you have your pick of the cream of the crop of copywriting and content creation. Nothing pays as well as writing for the finance and defense industries).
What if you can’t do that? Then you must content yourself with the lesser-paying but still somewhat financially rewarding filler for company sites. What is wrong with writing for fortune 500 companies that pay quite well? What is wrong, say, writing for Costco, which sells everything from laundry detergent to TVs to saucepan collections?
There is no end of articles advising aspiring content writers or copywriters to go for the big companies with the big budgets. I always come away from them feeling terribly lonely and a bit frustrated. These articles encourage writers to see what they write as if it’s a monoculture. A factory farm of words clumped together in pens that are all the same size and shape. When I look on sites like Freelancer the people who are looking for writers for their site content don’t even mention what the site is. The implication is that it shouldn’t matter. Everything is as equal as everything else.
Every time I try to swallow my bile and instead try to see my writing as a business, I see rows of chickens squashed into cages. I see forests being cut down for palm oil and soy. I see us drowning under the weight of excess production of the excess stuff of capitalism. And no matter how much I want to be able to write for these large companies, I just can’t. Because large companies are a major component in keeping the status quo the way it is. They do not pay their taxes, their major aim is to maximize profit for their shareholders, and they have powerful vested interests in keeping on with the earth’s destruction.
It is so unfashionable to say that what I write matters to me. In late-stage capitalism, writers are made to feel that we should separate what and who we write for from its effects on the world. And that if we don’t we are somehow unprofessional.
Well, stuff that. It does matter what we put our energies into. The output of our work does matter. We need more idealism expressed in the writing world, not less.
Okay, then. So what I have left is writing for nonprofits and co-ops, right? Now you’re talking. I wish to start up a co-op of my own, an Australian writers’ co-op producing Australian writer and journalist-written news (and explainers of the news) and place-based essays, where we cut out the owner and accord the profits to ourselves. Whatever profits there may be — which in my more negative moments feels like the stupidest of dumbass ideas, like starting up a coalmine or a factory producing beta video tapes. But you never know till you try, right? So the NFP space seems to be the right fit for someone with my sensibility, right?
But then the problem that shows up here is that money is often so tight that by the time you get to this end of the corporate spectrum a lot of the work is fundraising work. Coercing people this time not to buy stuff, but to give organizations money.
And so I’m back to my issues in paragraph one. I don’t want to write to coerce, to force, to pummel and persuade and motivate. To center everything around a “conversion”. All of these coercions have the same implication at their base — that you the reader are not okay as you are. You need to be persuaded that you really do need that saucepan collection to fill your gaping hole with a satisfaction that will last three minutes, or you need to feel guilted into paying your own money to help suffering people who are often suffering at the hands of a system that requires them to do so and that is run by governments with austerity proponents. Donating private money to ease people’s suffering in a capitalist system only keeps that system running. And I don’t much like that system.
There is no well-paid content writing that writes for the better future. It all just writes for more of the same. So much of it is public relations more than anything.
I can’t be content with that. I want my writing effort to be well-paid and to be geared towards, as writer and thinker Charles Eisenstein puts it, “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.” One not built on the profit-making mindset of the dark Satanic mills of the beginning of the industrial revolution (which are now outsourced out of sight to non-western countries). One not built on the need to sell, sell, sell, and to buy, buy, buy and to give, give, give when our world is groaning under the weight of such a system of stupidity. One not built on the profit of some at the expense of others.
I know it’s impossibly crazy to want to write for and in a world better than this one. But I simply won’t be content until that is the content.